Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Report from ... Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Taste the Season 2012 – November 3-4, 2012

This year’s Taste the Season was probably the best and most consistent I’ve ever seen.  The food was consistently good, except for one winery’s offering, which might just be one of the worst I have ever had (more on that in  a bit) – but considering that 28 wineries take part, the event is batting .964 – and that, to put it mildly, is pretty darn good.
Entrance to the NOTL Chamber of Commerce
We started (my wife Erica – the foodie – and I) by going through the list of pairings being offered as we waited to pick up our tickets at the Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Chamber of Commerce office in the heart of NOTL.  We decided to check off our top five or six wineries that we had the most expectations for based on the description of the pairing.  Our expectations lists matched pretty closely, with each of us picking six wineries that we were most looking forward to trying their food at.  In total we ended up with eight wineries on our combined list.  Erica chose Chateau des Charmes, Colaneri, Palatine Hills, Pillitteri, Ravine and Jackson-Triggs … mine dropped the Chateau and Pillitteri in favour of Hinterbrook and Stratus.  We marked all the wineries out of 5 on an ascending scale for Poor (1) to Excellent (5).

13 of the 28 wineries scored a 2 or 3 (which was Fair to Average), and those that scored 2 were based on our personal preferences instead of lack of flavour, enjoyment or forethought on there part.  For example, Cattail Creek served Wild Mushrom and Pencetta Ragout topped with Crispy Onions … a big portion with lots of mushrooms – but if you are not a mushroom fan (as I am not) the food would be lost on you.  While we scored it a 2, someone else who digs mushrooms would score it much higher.

Exceeded Expectations …

Southbrook's Surprising Soup
There was one winery we gave out little hope that we would like.  Southbrook’s offering of Maple Parsnip Bisque was one of those things that sounded odd on paper and we had written it off as probably a “yuck” tasting … but in practice it was absolutely delightful – especially on the chilly Saturday on which we had it.  Maybe a little too sweet for a whole bowl full, but the little medicine cup- sized serving really hit the spot. (Rating: 4)

Konzelmann was offering another one of our busts-on-paper: Kendal Vale Champion Brie, served with braised organic beats and chutney on a crostini … but this was a delicious bite, the Brie had a blue cheese like base and went perfectly with the chutney. (Rating: 4)

Met Expectations …

As mentioned, we chose 6 wineries each that we thought sounded like we were going to thoroughly enjoy their pairing based on the description.  Between the two of us 8 wineries had this added pressure on them … here are the ones that met those high-expectations:

Palatine Hills – Crisped Potato and Cheese Perogie with creamy side … a good pairing and everything was homemade. (Rating: 4)

Colaneri – Beef Slider Marinated in award-winning Syrah, with Carmelized Onions and Sundried Tomatoes … the folks at Colaneri never disappoint in both quality and quantity, as Betty Colaneri explains, “We’re Italian you have to eat and it has to be good”.  (Rating: 4)

Jackson-Triggs – House Cured Back Bacon and St. Paulin Grilled Cheese, served on grill roasted garlic bread with garden tomato and bacon jam … this was tasty – but if they had halved the Sammy, spread the jam over the entire bread and kept the same amount of cheese it would have been a 5-star offering, as it was it still ranked high. (Rating: 4)

Just Below Expectations … 
(these were pairings we were expecting more from based on the description)

Pillitteri – Chef Leighton’s World Famous Mac and Cheese … I hear “Mac and Cheese” and I’m looking for gooey cheese and when serving you almost have to cut the cheese strings with a pair of scissors so they don’t hang off the plate, that was not present here.  (Rating: 2)

Hinterbrook – Sophisto Joe’s Beef Braised in Red Wine, served on an artisanal bun with aged Jansen’s Cheddar … too much bun to too little meat, the ratio was off, an extra spoonful would have pushed this into the range of a four or a five, as it was we taste a lot of bun.  (Rating: 3)

Stratus – Beef Brisket with Kozlick’s Crunchy Mustard … the beef was tender but it was cold, mustard was cold and the chip was just not a good vehicle for this combination, they needed to serve this on a thin crostini. (Rating: 3)

The Worst …

Stay away from the nasty chip
Before we get to the 5 wineries that pulled off the ultimate food experience / taste sensation in 2012 I must first tell you about the worst food sample I have ever received in all my years of covering the taste the Season in Niagara on the Lake.  Diamond served a “Crispy Kettle Chips, with lemon-dill cream cheese and smoked salmon” … because these were pre-prepared and put somewhere to keep cold the chip had become a soggy mess and the sliver of salmon added nothing to the taste of the cheese of the soggy chip … what this really is was a soggy potato chip with a smear of cream cheese – all that needs to happen to turn this around is don’t pre-prepare the chips, either make them to order or allow people to apply the “dip” themselves … plus it was not “chips” it was chip (single) … as it stands now this is one to be avoided, unless they can fix it in the last two weeks of the event. (Rating: 1)

Exceeded Expectation … 
(the 5 wineries that over delivered - we'd go again and again)

Starting with those we picked as possible favourites:

Chateau des Charmes – Chipotle Braised Beef Mini Soft Taco, with tomatillo salsa and goat’s milk crème fraiche … you know it’s good when your reaction is, “I wanted a bigger taco” – I could eat these all day and twice on Sunday.  (Rating: 5)

Ravine – same could be said here for their “Nine-Hour Smoked Ribs … the words “oh My God” must have crossed our lips more than half a dozen times each when talking to each other about these.  They serve them in the summer on Wednesdays and Sundays, I now know where I’ll be hanging out on those nights next summer.  (Rating: 5)

Now for the one’s that weren’t on our expectations lists but over-delivered all on their own:

Niagara College – Pinot Braised Ontario Beef and Root Vegetable Ragout … this hit the spot on a chilly Saturday.  Who’s kidding anyone, it’s a beef stew, but an absolutely delicious beef stew, everything melded together perfectly, something else I could eat bowls full of.  (Rating: 5)

Reif Estate – Sage and Apple Turkey Meatball in a Chardonnay Cream Sauce … reaction, “Now that was a good meatball”, and it continued to be one of those bites we talked about throughout the next two days.  (Rating: 5)

Inniskillin – Asian Inspired Chicken Wings … again this was one of those that sounded mediocre on paper but turned out to be so awesome in the mouth – something you wanted to order a basket of with a side of fries, who knew icewine could pair with chicken wings, and although there was Saracha sauce in the recipe you could not tell.  Get together with Ravine’s ribs and you’d never leave the table.  (Rating: 5)

I’m happy to report that this is one of the most consistent editions of Taste the Season ever … all the foods (with the exception of one) were homey and tasty and more than half of the bites you’d want to make at home over the holidays – good thing recipes were available.  Below are more pictures from our day of touring.  For those still going this year - have fun ... for those who have gone, tell me your favourites (#NOTLtasteseason).
A Couple of Wines of Note ...
My two favourite wines … off tasting menu (meaning not as part of the Taste the Season program) were the following two wines, for two different reasons:

Drink Now:  Ravine 2011 Meritage (click on wine name for full review)
Drink Later:  Pondview 2010 Bella Terra Cabernet Franc (click on wine name for full review)

Our Tour in Pictures ...
Stonechurch was our first stop of the Saturday morning
For Breakfast we had Chili ...
we enjoyed every bite
Palatine Hills serves up Fume Blanc with homemade Perogies

Konzelmann's seemingly simple crostini was shockingly delicious

Hinterbrook's "Joe" sliders ... the one on the left is the better bite

Strewn three snack sampler - the left was the best pairing

Sunnybrook serves up apple tart (one of only two desserts on the passport)

Jackson-Triggs tasty sandwich: half the size, spread the jam and this is a winner

Pillitteri's Mac & Cheese made us ask "where's the cheese?"

Joseph's Apple Fig squares were imported form Willow Pastry

Peller and their terrine seems too sophisticated for for this homey event

Lailey's spiced squash soup and rosemary shortbread

The Ice House: Fiesta Maize

Pondview thinks outside the box, serving a salmon tartlet (only seafood of the day)

Cattail's mushroom extravaganza

Coyote's Run serves up substantial sized Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Colaneri serves it up buffet style

Another tasty bit served up by Colaneri: beef sliders
What you are about to see next might offend you ...
Niagara College Ragout: It don't look so pretty but it tastes amazing
Reif's Sage, Apple and Turkey meatball in Chardonnay cream sauce - forget the bread )and what it looks like) - delicious
Inniskillin: these Asian wings rock
Ravine - a sideways glance at some of the best ribs I've had in quite some time - pair these with the Inniskillin wings and I don't think I'd leave the table all night
Chateau des Charmes' complex set up, yields ...
the perfect bite ... yummy
UPDATE (11/16/2012) ... 
(Found notes - I'd be remiss if I did not mention)

As I was about to throw out my notes from Taste the Season I noticed I left out two wineries whose pairing was worth noting:

Coyote's Run (pictured above) ... a meal in your hand worth of Vietnamese Beef Spring Roll - I thought spring rolls were vegetarian in nature but I guess I was wrong, this was a tasty three of four bites - I was hoping for a sweet sauce to go with it (like a plum) but you can't always get what you want, but with this pairing - and with respect to the Stones - we did get what we needed.  And it was the only winery to pick up the half mark +, it wasn't perfect but it was damn near close.  (Rating: 4+)

Pondview (pictured above) ... as the only winery to serve a seafood dish (Diced sweet roasted red pepper and creamy smoked salmon tartlet) this was an impressive little bite.  Usually the tart takes over on these type of morsels,. but this time there was a nice balance of flavour in the tart as well as not having too much tart so that it was all you tasted ... if you need a respite from all the meat this is a good stop (and only stop) to get your seafood on.  (Rating: 4)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Report from … The Pinot Affair – October 13, 2012

Have you been Pinoted yet? I don’t mean PO’ed, I’ve been that way too many times myself, but right now I’m talking about being Pinoted, as in Pinot Noir.  If you haven’t then maybe it’s about time you look into getting your Pinot-on.  It’s high time you had a torrid love affair with one of the world’s most fickle and finicky grapes.  And that’s just what 9 wineries in Niagara wanted you to do, escape to the region and get in touch with your inner Pinot-phile (there’s one in all of us) because these wineries wear their love for the grape on their sleeve for all to see – and they were bound and determined to show you why.

I’ll admit something here and now, I learned something new because of this event … my wife is a closet Pinot Noir fan (well not closeted anymore) – she’s not much of a red wine drinker, but she seemed to enjoy Pinot after Pinot as it hit her glass and her palate, from the aromas to the taste she became smitten – who knew?

The Pinot Affair is an event put on by nine Pinot making wineries:  Coyote’s Run, Henry of Pelham, Hidden Bench, Inniskillin, Lailey, Le Clos Jordanne, Malivoire, Rosewood and Tawse.  Looking over the programming I noticed that some wineries opted for appointment-based affairs while others chose the garden variety drop-in affair – the good news is that all were through the front door … though Coyote’s Run had you pop into an out-building to arrange their affair.  I’m a big fan of the drop-in because an appointment might mean I have to cut someone else’s visit short, so with that in mind I only visited 5 of the 9 wineries to have my affair with. 
A Pinot array at Henry of Pelham
Starting the day with Henry of Pelham, where they were pouring a number of different vintage Pinots ranging from 1998 to 2009 (a decade-plus of Pinot).  The most impressive were the 2003 Unfiltered (nice tartness with hint of licorice and all-spice), the 2004 Unfiltered (root veggies, sour cherry, earth, dried cranberry, very farm reminiscent) and the 2007 Unfiltered (punches well above its class with spice, sour cherry, cranberry tartness, along with white and black pepper – great acidity especially for the vintage).  Here we learned that Ontario Pinot has great staying power
Rosewood welcomes it Pinot-philes
Next up, Rosewood – where they played a game called “Pinot Gone Wild”, here you had to guess which Pinot was manually started fermentation with cultured yeast and which was made using wild or indigenous yeast.  The wild wines were just more complex and had layers to them that the others just could not match; the non-wild were still good wines in there way, wild was just more appealing in both its 2009 and 2008 versions.  Rosewood also served a wonderful array of food with each Pinot, from Boeuf Bourgignon to Homemade Borscht … if it were all about the food instead of the wine Rosewood won hands down.  The take away here was an education on how the choice of yeast (or lack thereof) can affect the wines.
Coyote's Run is your backdoor man for Pinot
Stop three took us back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where Coyote’s Run was doing a demonstration of terroir paired with regional cheese … Burgundian Pinot was served with Epoiss (from Burgundy), Boedecker 2009 Pappas Pinot from Oregon was served with Oregonzola (Oregon) and Niagara’s own Coyote’s Run Pinots (both Red and Black Paw) were paired with Glengarry Fine Cheese … the only missed pairing was the New Zealand match which had to be served with Roblochon (Savoie, France) due to lack of New Zealand cheeses found locally.  An interesting education of Pinots from around the world.
Inniskillin's two offerings - both from hot vintages 
Inniskillin did a duel of hot vintage Pinots from their Montague vineyard series … the current 2010 versus the 2007 … the sweet fresh fruit of the 2010 versus the aged rusticity of 2007 … served alongside a mushroom crostini – if only I like mushrooms.  Will the 2010 age in the same way as the 2007, or have our winemakers learned how to deal with cool climate loving grapes in hot weather vintages?  Time will tell.
The Evolution of Lailey's special bottlings of Pinot
Final stop on our march through the world of Pinot, was to Lailey, where they had the option of appointment or just tasting.  The appointment was for a wander through the vineyard to see Pinot in its natural habitat (on the vine) – too bad Pinot had already been harvested this year at the time of the event, due to an early harvest, so I’m not quite sure what they talked about out there.  Five different Pinots were on the menu, all single vineyard offerings from either the Lailey estate or Wismer vineyard, and these were even broken down to Old Vines and Brickyard, which are specific blocks within vineyards.  The wines were from 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2009 with a sneak peak at the new 2010 Lot 48.  The winner here was the 2007 Old Vines, which seemed to roll a lovely cherry bouquet up in a spicy, robust raspberry-like envelope – time has really helped mellow the soul of this wine, with more mellow to come.

Like it or love it, the Pinot Affair is a great way to get to know this grape in many of its forms … and, just like my wife did, start what might become a long lasting affair with the world’s most fussy, yet fanciful, but always fickle and finicky, grape variety.

More pictures from our day on the Pinot Trail ...
Rosewood:  "The Ripe Year" Pinots - 2010

Rosewood: "The Cool Year" Pinots - 2009

Rosewood:  Tender and meaty Boeuf Bourgignon

Rosewood: Steaming pot of Borscht

Coyote's Run:  Jeff Aubry is down with Pinot Noir

Coyote's Run:  The Classic vs. The New World

Coyote's Run:  Piling in for Pinot
Inniskillin: their crostini with mushroom snack

Lailey:  even the bottles are falling over themselves for this grape

Report from … Concha y Toro Tasting with Marcelo Papa – September 24, 2012

I have met Marcelo Papa on a number of occasions and each time he talks just as passionately and just as excitedly about the wines he makes as if it were his first time speaking about them … though I am sure it’s about the hundredth just that week alone.

Today I tasted through a number of Concha wines including the Casillero del Diablo wines, Marques wines and some Don Melchor’s, plus a bottle or two brought in especially for the tasting … at this tasting it was the Marques wines that truly impressed – read on McDuff …
New look for the Casillero label

Casillero del Diablo (top three) …

Cassillero Merlot
2011 Merlot ($12.95 - #427088)
Pure Chilean Merlot, lots of blackberry, blueberry and cassis with a touch of spice.  Nice full flavoured finish – smooth and ultimately drinkable. (****)

2011 Malbec ($12.95 - #94060)
Malbec is not the grape you think of Chile for, but they seem to have found the magic formula for yet another grape variety not their own.  Hint of leather, blackberry and cassis on the nose with a palate full of black cherry, raspberry and all with a peppery finish.  (****)

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.95 - #278416)
Chocolate and cherry whip the nose into a frenzy, then comes the palate: slightly peppered with cassis and cocoa … good Cab for every occasion, all at a great price. (****)

The Line Up of Wines for the Day

Structured tasting …

The main part of the tasting dealt with all the different valleys in which y Toro is making their wines and the difference their locales make in the glass.  According to Marcello, Limari is north, so it’s great for Pinot and Chardonnay; Leyda is mid-coastal, only 8 miles from the ocean where Cabernet and Syrah seem to thrive.  Maipo is inland, so the Syrah grows really well there; Rapel is more southerly, so it gets to grow the likes of Carmenere and Merlot.

The Marques Wines of Choice (top three) …

Awesome Sauv Blanc is N/A
It’s not surprising that you can’t find some of the most amazing wines at the LCBO and the Marques de Casa Concha 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($18.95) could easily be described as amazing.  The fruit for this wine is sourced from one of the oldest blocks of Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Leyda Valley (planted in 1999).  Herbal with pink and yellow grapefruit notes (pulp and pith) with sweet grass, bracing acidity and a long lovely finish. (****+)

Merlot seems to have long been a staple for Chile (I know it was the first grape from Chile I tried) so it’s no wonder they’re still cranking them out with great success.  The Marques de Casa Concha 2010 Merlot ($19.95 - #939827) has a nose as complex (and delicious) as the palate: plum, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and chocolate play in the olfactories while in the mouth big dark fruit flavours, ripe silky tannins with hints of blueberry skin dance across the tongue … look for a juicy mid-palate that leads to a chocolate based finish. (****+)

But this Pinot more than makes up for it
And now for something completely different, the Marques des Casa Concha 2011 Pinot Noir ($19.95 - #301424, December 8, 2012 Vintages release) is something to behold.  14 months in French oak of which 20% is new.  This wine is made from young-ish vines, planted in 2006, in the Limari Valley, but already shows a real depth of character.  The nose is full of lovely red fruit, namely raspberry and cranberry with a real freshness – think California with better acidity.  The palate is also full fruited with flavor: black cherry, raspberry, hints of vanilla and good minerality to boot … it’s one heck of a Pinot from a place you don’t expect great Pinot, Chile (but what am I saying, Chile can make anything) – scary to see what they will produce with much older vines of this grape.  With it’s toned down alcohol (13.7%) Chile – and more specifically Concha y Toro and Marcelo - may have found yet another grape they can do well – really well. (**** ½)

Special Wines …

The future looks bright
Today we tried 2 kinds of special wines.  The second were a pair of the Concha y Toro top tier wines: Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon ($79.95) one form 2007 the other from 2008 – both were very nice – but this is not the part of the tasting that made me stand up and take notice, an $80 bottle of wine should age nicely.  But what about a $20 bottle of Marques?  The first vintage of the label was in 1974 and it started slowly with limited production and today they are pumping out 70,000 cases of high quality wine at a good price.  The tasting of Marques Cabernet Sauvignon included a lineup of wines from 2010, 2009 and 2001.  According to Marcelo Papa the 2010 is “the best that I have made in my tenure making Marques” – and he’s not just whistling Dixie, this is a beauty that has everything you’d want in a Chilean Cabernet: blackberry, chocolate, raspberry, pepper, coffee and mocha notes on the nose; while the palate is full of dark and delicious fruit with good spice and firm tannins (****+).  Ageing potential is 10 years-plus and it is interesting to note that this wine is made from pre-phylloxera vines, and that applies to all vintages of this wine.

and so does the past
And speaking of ageing potential, the 2001 Marques Cabernet was an awesome display of age-ability.  Nose of dried cherry, hints of raisin with a taste that still shows freshness of fruit even through its dried nature; there’s even some leathery-tarry notes with elements of blackberry running down the seam … but there was also a juiciness that remained in the wine and even more exciting, chocolate bits.  This wine was loaded with flavor and for $20 was/is an absolute steal … think of that next time you’re out and about and look for something to impress yourself with in 10+ years.